With all the attention being paid to kettlebell training over the past decade, the dumbbell has taken a backseat in many athletic and physical fitness-training programs. Then, of course, there are the ever-expanding lines of functional training machines that offer an endless variety of exercises. With so many choices, should dumbbells still be a part of your training?
As a bit of history, about 2,000 years ago the Greeks introduced a crescent-shape stone with a handle that was called a haltere – this could be considered the first dumbbell. Moving ahead to about 1485 in England, church bells were used by athletes to strengthen the muscles of their upper body. These bells had the clappers removed so they would not produce sound, and as such, they got the name “dumbbell.”
The most common type of dumbbell is a fixed dumbbell, which means the weight doesn’t change. The most economical dumbbells have metal plates, or shells filled with a material such as sand (although there are now shells that can be filled with water for those who travel). Most commercial gyms prefer dumbbells with rubber plates or the stronger (and more expensive) polyurethane as they are less likely to damage floors or tear the upholstery on benches (not that you should be placing dumbbells on upholstery).
For gyms on a budget, or for those training at home who do not have room for a complete set of dumbbells, adjustable dumbbells are one solution. These dumbbells have plates that can be removed or added to change the resistance; the issue is that the collars need to be heavy duty and tightly secured – especially with heavy weights – to prevent them from sliding off while lifting.
Another solution for home training are selectorized dumbbells. The core of this system is a variable-weight handle and a pin that is inserted into the blocks to quickly change the weights. With a set that increases the weight by five pounds on each dumbbell, a single 50-pound unit replaces 10 pairs of dumbbells, and one manufacturer offers a unit that expands to 130 pounds per hand! The drawback to these dumbbells is that their large size makes it awkward to perform some exercises such as pullovers or dumbbell swings, and often the pins will wear out and need to be replaced with high use. Also, it’s not a good idea to drop them after performing dumbbell bench presses as they may damage them. Purchasing a stand for these blocks is also a good idea as it can be difficult to change the weights without them.
Let’s talked about dumbbell handles. The least expensive dumbbells have smooth handles (as knurling the handles increases the production cost). Knurling provides a more secure grip, which is especially needed when using heavy weights in pulling movements. Much of the knurling on dumbbells has crosshatch pattern, but the Eleiko dumbbells have the same waffle-type pattern that is used in their famous barbells. To prevent excessive build-up of chalk that can affect the grip, these handles should be cleaned with a wire brush.
Most dumbbell handles are cylinder-shaped, but there are special handles (such as one shaped like a triangle) that many individuals find more comfortable. Also, some dumbbells have rotating handles to make them more comfortable and easier to perform many exercises such as one-arm snatches. For durability, there are also dumbbells available with galvanized handles to help prevent rust.
Thick-handled equipment (or use of attachments such as the Fat Gripz™) has become popular because it reduces the need for additional forearm and grip training. Thick-handled training is also believed to increase strength more effectively than conventional handles, even with pressing exercises, and is more specific to sports such as wrestling and judo as the grappling movement are usually performed with an open hand.
Compared to barbells, dumbbells have many advantages. First, they allow for a greater range of motion than many barbell exercises. With a barbell bench press, the pectorals will not reach peak contraction because the hands cannot come together as with dumbbells; with a barbell row, the arms cannot come as far back as with a dumbbell because the chest gets in the way. Allowing a greater range of motion is one reason why dumbbell training is often used by bodybuilders (to ensure maximum muscle hypertrophy) and by athletes to strengthen the muscles through their full range of motion.
Finally, dumbbells allow for a more natural motion than many barbell exercises. For example, dumbbells allow the hands can rotate into a neutral (semi-supinated) position that puts less stress on the shoulders during presses, rowing exercises, and curls.
The downside of dumbbell training is that it is difficult to overload the legs because you are limited by the amount of weight you can hold. For example, someone who can back squat 250 pounds would probably have difficulty performing this exercise by holding 125 pounds in each hand. For this reason, those who use dumbbells for leg training usually stick to single-limb exercises such as split squat and lunges.
Another issue with dumbbells is that because they are less stable than barbells or most machine exercises, less weight is used, reducing the overall strength training effect (although this instability works the smaller, stabilizing muscles harder). For serious strength athletes (or those who simply want to get super strong), dumbbells are usually used to supplement barbell work, not replace it. Also, the increased instability of dumbbells can increase the risk of an accident, so those using them must be especially aware of their technique and their surroundings when lifting.
Despite all the cool resistance-training tools available in today’s modern gyms, dumbbells have many advantages over other types of training such that they are not likely to become a training tool of the past. So be smart – use dumbbells!